Cultural Immersion versus Being a Tourist

Cultural Immersion versus Being a Tourist

July 19, 2016

Person holding a map

In order to immerse yourself in the essence of a new culture, you’ll have to go beyond the typical tourist traps and find the heart of the nation and its people. I have gathered a few tips so you can make the most out of your next holiday.

Take the Bus. This is the first bit of advice that I give to anyone who wants to see the locals’ side of any place. Taking the bus is a cheap way to get around, and it’s also a great way to start conversations with locals. You’ll be able to meet people and learn about the cool places that you won’t find in a travel brochure. Plus, you’ll have a cheaper way to get there. Tourists take taxis and tour buses; locals take the bus. Just be sure to find out whether the buses are safe and what they charge before you get on.

Avoid the Shopping. Shopping at tourist-driven markets and tourist-driven malls keeps you stuck in areas designed to accommodate travellers. They also tend to a very expensive way to entertain yourself. Rather than hitting the mall, go beyond the tourist traps and find places where locals shop. When my husband and I went to the Bahamas for our honeymoon, we discovered that the “open market” outside our resort was really just a creative way to do retail. So, we started walking until we found the places where the locals hang out. What we encountered was delicious local cuisine, a farmers market geared toward residents’ needs, and a quiet beach where locals hung out. Definitely worth it!

Going on the street - Cultural Immersion

Create Your Own Tours. Skip the advertised tours and take yourself around. Or better, find a local to take you to his or her favorite places. Taxi drivers can be great tour guides. Call a taxi and ask him to show you the real island, the real city, etc. Chances are, he’ll be glad you asked and give you some awesome locations to check out. Depending on the region’s safety and culture, a local may even agree to be your unofficial tour guide and personally lead you to all his or her favorite spots and tell you the history behind everything. I’ve seen Native Americans in Arizona give personal tours to visitors and take them to all sorts of interesting out-of-the-way places that are meaningful to Native culture. Of course, the way you decide to create your own tour depends on the sort of place you’re in, but there is almost always an option to explore the area without the help of over-priced tourism companies.

Eat Local. This may sounds obvious. However, eating local can be harder than you think. The most convenient places for tourists are usually familiar chains or hyped-up versions of local food that are designed to appeal to tourists’ pallets. For an authentic taste of the culture, visit the fringes of the area you’re staying in. You can usually find a legit local place, owned and operated by locals, on the edge of any tourist district. Ask locals for recommendations for a restaurant, and once you get there, ask the employees for a recommendation on the food.  

Fruits at the market - Cultural Immersion

Talk to People. Tourists usually keep to themselves or hang out with other tourists. If you want cultural immersion, you have to strike up a conversation with people in the culture. If language barriers aren’t an issue, try chatting with people on the bus, people waiting in line with you, waitresses, taxi drivers, etc. If language barriers are a problem, learn some basic phrases of the language and try it out on some of the people around you. In most places, they’ll help you out and appreciate your effort.

Next time you’re on holidays, try a few of these tips, and see what happens! You might find that a trip driven by culture rather than tourism is the trip of a lifetime. Good luck!


Breana is an American expat living in the Dutch Caribbean. Graphic Designer and writer from sunny Arizona, she has travelled around the Caribbean, Mexico, Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya and most of the U.S. You can also follow Breana and her adventures together with her husband, at